General election coalition launched

Submitted by cathy n on 9 November, 2009 - 1:36 Author: Elaine Jones
Poll

A coalition to stand trade union and left general election candidates was announced at the Saturday 7 November conference on political representation called by the rail union RMT.


Click here for letter from the AWL to other left groups about coalition plans.

The planned coalition has the backing of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Green Socialism and is supported in a personal capacity by Bob Crow (general secretary of the RMT), Brian Caton (general secretary of the POA), National officers in PCS, and national executive committee members of the CWU, UNISON, FBU and USDAW.

According to the leaflet given out at the start of the meeting the intention is to stand candidates as part of a federal coalition under a common name but so far no name has been decided and the core politics will ‘be the subject of further discussions.’

There were no democratic decisions taken nor any input from delegates or trade unionists into the nature of the coalition or its politics.

Many of the speakers including Brian Caton and Bob Crow made the case for why the working class needed a new political voice. New Labour has just followed on from the Tories introducing even more privatisation and attacks on jobs and conditions. There were also many appeals on the need for unity and how we should put aside our petty differences and unite. However, what wasn’t so clear was, unite with whom, and on what basis.

The discussions on who and on what basis have been going on during and since the No2EU Yes to democracy campaign when candidates were stood in the European elections and it would seem that the select few involved with these discussions have proved that they are incapable of agreeing any unity. The Communist Party were in, then out, then half in and half out and now in – more like the hokey cokey than a united platform. John Foster (CPB) and others are making it clear that they think the central demand, even in the general election, should be "no to Europe". There is a sham unity and the rest of us are supposed to "stop the talking shops and get on with the business".

The AWL leaflet for the event (none of us were taken to speak) made the point that what is needed is open, democratic discussion among left groups and interested trade unions and that the politics we stand such candidates on needs to be clearly pro –worker and anti-capitalist, internationalist and socialist.

So far the whole of issue of democracy has been ignored and instead we get told that this new steering committee will act by ‘consensus’.

The issue of democracy cannot be an optional extra: It is the only basis on which you can have any real unity.

In the trade union movement we campaign for rank and file democratic control in order to hold the leaderships to account and organise effective action and you can certainly only have effective working class political representation if you have democratic structures based on the organised working class.

The centrality of democracy is further illustrated if you look at how the Blairites/ Brownites came to dominate the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn outlined their shift politically to the right but what should have been added was that the key to keeping control was their ability to get rid of most of the democratic structures of the Labour Party.

For us, whether we are discussing socialist unity, trade unionism or working class political representation- democracy is key because our politics is based on working class self emancipation not a socialism brought in by benign dictators.

In terms of who will be supporting the initiative the Socialist Party will be and seemingly aren’t raising any criticisms; Matt Wrack from FBU said that the FBU, although welcoming, will be cautious about who they back as they wouldn’t stop supporting the Labour MPs who back them. Jeremy Corbyn MP didn’t make a hostile speech. Other people from the Labour Representation Committee seemed to be more against any non-Labour candidates. The PCS union wasn't represented.

That said, it was suggested that there will be a loose federal structure with local groups being established. If that is the case then it may be possible to argue that local groups should be democratic and should be on-going campaigns for socialist unity and working class political representation.

Comments

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 11:47

Dear comrades,

We are writing in response to the leaflet distributed at the 7 November conference sponsored by RMT which announced "a coalition to stand trade union and socialist candidates in the general election". We address this letter to the CPB, SP, and AGS, the sponsoring groups of that projected coalition; to the individual sponsors of the coalition; and to groups such as the SWP which are not so far part of the coalition but have signalled a desire to become part.

The leaflet calls for the participation of "all those who want to see a pro-working-class alternative presented at the election" and invites those who "want to get involved" to contact the organisers. The name and core policies of the coalition are still to be worked out.

We want to take part in the discussions about a coalition. As you will know, we are already campaigning on the streets and the doorsteps in Camberwell and Peckham for Jill Mountford as a socialist candidate there.

Obviously a coalition's policies are not going to be exactly what any one component of the coalition would wish. They will not be perfect and fully-rounded. We are not making any ultimatums before discussion. But we do want to flag up issues which we see as critical to making an election coalition a productive effort.

A structure allowing open, lively, democratic political decision-making in the coalition is vital. The leaflet rightly focuses on the "lack of political representation of... working-class people". To contribute to working-class representation, it is not enough to say that you want to do that, or to appear for a few weeks of election campaign and say some good things. An election campaign has to be a tool to build politics and a political structure which can serve democratic working-class political self-expression.

The record of anti-Labour left candidacies over the 12 years of New Labour government has been very modest. For left candidates to appear at each election with a different policy and project from the previous one cannot but encourage working-class voters to hold back from a venture on such candidates until - to their eyes - we have sorted our act out in some stable way.

Realistically, the proposed coalition will judge its success not by winning seats, but by rallying a sizeable minority voice for a clear political message. It may get more than the 1.0% that "No2EU" got in the Euro-election, but cannot realistically expect to get radically more.

That makes it important that the political message is indeed clear. A small vote for a blurred, ambiguous, or inadequately working-class and socialist message is the worst of all worlds.

To aim just to put up candidate in opposition to New Labour, in abstraction from the politics, would be to make an a-political fetish of elections. The politics of the coalition are all-important.

To be useful, minority candidates should take a clear stand for the principle of independent working-class political representation. They should make it clear that they represent a workers', and not just a generic "people's", programme. They should indicate that their aim is a workers' government - a government which serves the working-class majority as loyally as New Labour and Tories serve the rich.

They should offer a clear answer to the working class on issues like jobs: a shorter working week; nationalisation of the whole of high finance to create a public banking, insurance, and finance service; nationalisation under workers' control, with minimal compensation, of enterprises declaring redundancies.

They should be clear against the anti-union laws, and for the right to strike and to picket in solidarity.

In view of the current rise of xenophobia and racism, they should take a clear stand in favour of free movement of people across borders, defending the rights that already exist within the European Union and arguing for them to be extended beyond the EU.

It will compromise any left slogans of the coalition if they are coupled with making "No to EU" or similar into a leading slogan. Pleas that the "no" to the EU is on the grounds of it being capitalist and neo-liberal make no sense to us. A Britain walled off from other European states would be equally capitalist, and more neo-liberal than the EU. That is why the British government sought and got an opt-out from the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights (with its codification of the right to strike), and has delayed and is delaying in implementing the EU Working Time Directive and Agency Workers Directive; that is why the serious anti-Lisbon-Treaty party is the Tories.

Anti-EU slogans do not convey an anti-capitalist or even anti-neo-liberal message. They cannot but nourish nationalist and anti-migrant rhetoric. The left should not go along with that.

All this, and more, needs to be discussed clearly and openly. We want to be part of that discussion. Please let us know about the procedures for getting involved in the talks towards the general election.

In solidarity,

Alliance for Workers' Liberty

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 12/11/2009 - 13:45

We have received a courteous reply to this letter from Mike Davies of the AGS: "The next meeting of the current steering committee is towards the end of November. The Alliance for Green Socialism very much hopes that this will make concrete progress, including addressing the question of wider participation in the coalition".

The Socialist Party carried a long statement in its paper on 3 November. Presumably it reckoned that, with the coalition talks going public at the 7 November conference, it had to make some explanation of its position to its members and supporters.

In 1800 words, the statement includes no message or hint about what "core policies" the SP is proposing for the coalition.

With No2EU, the SP "line" was: "Yes, the policies are poor. There was no time to develop anything better before the June election deadline. But this is a start. Better policies can be won over time".

The statement gives no indication that the SP has been pressing hard for better policies in the five months of talks since June.

Time was when the SP, like all other Trotskyists in the broadest sense of the word, would never even have considered backing the CPB or its (more lively and more substantially worker-based) predecessors in elections. But the statement makes it look as if the SP will accept CPB stuff for the coalition's "core policies", and will be happy if it can salve its conscience by an agreement that it can add saving "peripheral" clauses to local leaflets where it has local strength.

In particular, the statement includes no indication that the SP will press hard to reduce the "No2EU" nationalism which (obviously) dominated the No2EU effort, or that the SP sees any need to argue with the CPB about Europe.

As regards what is in the statement, there are two main points of interest.

The main issue that the SP flags up as unresolved is the name to be chosen for the coalition. The SP says it has suggested "Trade Unionists and Green Socialists Alliance", but been knocked back on the grounds that "trade unionists" is too "narrow" and "socialist" is "too far ahead of workers' consciousness".

As a fallback, evidently not yet agreed, the SP proposes: "No cuts! Defend jobs and services".

The name is, of course, a tactical issue. But it is a serious one, since this is a "propaganda" slate - one whose realistic hopes must be limited to getting respectable minority votes for a clear message. It is a new slate, with a new name, with only a few months to make itself known.

It is ironic that the SP, whose habit is to define itself as left-wing by the sheer fact of voicing the words "socialism is the only answer" for conflicts such as those in Israel/ Palestine and Ireland, now decides that calling for "socialism" is quite dispensable if the prize to be won by dropping it is an alliance with the CPB.

More seriously, though, if the view prevails in the coalition that socialism is an idea "too far ahead" for the title of the slate, that must make it harder to get much socialist content into the substantive policies under the title.

The other issue given most attention in the statement is the disagreement between the SP and the CPB over whether to vote for Labour in seats where they are not standing. It seems, however, that this issue has been resolved by an agreement to disagree.

The second point of interest is that the statement hints strongly that - even with the SP being undemanding about "core policies" - agreement may not be finalised.

The statement is titled, "Action needed to bring election coalition into shape", and concludes by discussing what the SP will do "if a coalition cannot be assembled".

Submitted by david kirk on Thu, 13/05/2010 - 22:35

"But we recognize that the great size of the Labour Party is also due to the fact that it is the creation of a school of thought beyond which the majority of the British working class has not yet emerged, though great changes are at work in the mind of the people which will presently alter this state of affairs....” Sylvia Pankhurst.

It is inevitable that with Labour in opposition that the arguments for revolutionary socialists to “go into the Labour Party” will get louder and more vociferous. Indeed our group has passed a motion to re-establish a Labour Party fraction and for branches to Reconnoiter for signs of socialist life inside the local CLPs. Others on the serious thinking part of the left will no doubt come to similar conclusions. However I do not think this half-in-half-out fishing for contacts and allies in the Labour Party is enough. The Labour Party is the only mass political organisation of the working class we must be serious about fighting for Marxist socialist ideas to be the hegemonic idea amongst the Labour parties base.

The Lessons of the Election.

One aspect of the election that has been little commented on is the number of votes the Labour Party received. In most of the big metropolitan constituencies the Labour vote rose substantially from 2001 and 2005. In Leeds, Sheffield, Leicester, Manchester and some London Boroughs the number (though not the proportion) of Votes cast for Labour was up by almost a third. The Labour vote declined massively in the suburbs and rural areas but in the cities much of the working class vote turned out. From my own anecdotal experience, amongst my young workmates large numbers who had never taken an interest in politics before went out to vote for the first time. They naturally voted Labour because it is ‘the working class party’ and the Tories are a party for the rich.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this election for the pundits of the bourgeoisie press (along with the resilience of the Labour vote) has been the non-appearance of the Clegg Factor on polling day. The explanation now being given is the recovery of ‘class alignment’, in short the lack of a social base for the Lib Dems told as people voted according to social class. This is also one of the reasons for the failure of the BNP to capitalize on the situation at this election.

The other most pressing question for Marxists is the abysmal failure of ‘left of Labour’ candidates in the broadest sense. The appalling low vote in general for TUSC was predictable considering how small and lackluster their campaign was. However our failure in Camberwell and Peckham, the AGS’s poor results in Leeds, Respects results in Hall Green were not down to piss poor paper campaigns. They had boots on the ground and leaflets in the letter box. I do not think this reflects a general rejection of socialist ideas amongst working class voters. Instead it is down to the utter failure of the left to imbed itself as an organic part of the working class.

The tasks we face.

We must face facts, at the moment our group does not have any real weight or influence in the organisd working class. We have some influence in the RMT in London and some influential trade unionst’s, but support we gain in the unions is often down to being very good trade unionist’s not necessarily down to support for our politics.

The general milieu of the british left we are active in is more akin to a subculture then a force within the working class. We pick up members and contacts here or there because of the strength of our ideas but in general only those who are already in the left tribe. This is the problem the socialist Alliance or any other Left unity project will have. At best it can unite the forces of the left give it some energy and profile. However without the mass involvement of the trade union movement the left will find it hard to build any base within the class.

Another problem we face if we are looking for any left of Labour re-groupment is the effects of the slow disintegration of the Socialist Workers Party. The expulsion / resignation of its leadership the SWP cannot be accounted for to the members since Rees’s debased version of Cliffite politics is still the politics of the new SWP leadership. To avoid awkward questions the SWP has gone into full headless chicken mode. Build LMHR, build UAF, build Right to Work, get Martin and Weyman arrested and ask questions later. Alongside this it has become increasingly sectarian to wall itself of from those on the left who would pose those awkward questions to its exhausted and confused membership. A most obvious effect of this disintegration is it helps the rise of the Socialist Party and to a lesser extent the CPB. These are hardly dynamic forces that we can unite with in any sustainable way beyond the work we already do jointly.

Things can and will change quickly. It’s fair to assume the recent minor increase in militant union activity will continue and even intensify. Syndicalist upsurges in rank and file trade union militancy may greet the looming cuts and the renewal of the economic crisis. Events in Europe may well have an effect on the militancy of the British working class as it did after 1792, 1917 and 1968. One thing that we can bet on is that the current economic and political crisis will make hundreds of thousands if not millions of workers question the logic of capitalism for the first time in 25 years. The problem is the revolutionary left largely speaks to itself and is in no position to educate, organize or mobilize these workers whilst it is walled off in its left ghetto. Our task is to reach the mass of class conscious workers and argue the case for a workers government, socialism and revolution. There is only one political organization that has this reach and this is the Labour Party.

Marxists and The Labour Party.

When ever a Marxist advocates support for or work in Labour they tend to justify themselves with reference to the writings of Lenin and the concept of a ‘bourgeois workers Party’. We tend to push the importance of the link with the trade unions and sprinkle what we say with quotes from Left Wing Communism. However I think Lenin’s point about the Labour Party in Left Wing Communism has often been missed. It was not the trade union link that was the decisive factor for Lenin to advocating communists work within the Labour Party, it was the fact that in the consciousness of the mass of the workers the Labour Party was their party. He writes:

“At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson (The Labour leader- DK) and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois "democracy"), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Henderson's will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Henderson's and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.”

In short I think what was true in 1920 is true in 2010. The strength of the workers movement in Britain is its sense of tribal class loyalty to its organizations; the unions and the Labour Party. Unfortunately this consciousness has not gone beyond voting Labour as the workers party to keep the Tories out and the politics of the Daily Mirror.

In a way I think SCSTF was groping towards the strategy outlined by Lenin in the quote above. However I do not think we can really convince or reach the mass of working class Labour voters unless we discontinue the one foot in, one foot out position we hold. We should seek to form the nucleus of a new revolutionary left inside the Labour Party, We can not do this unless we are serious, committed and methodical in our Labour Party work.

If we look at the history of how small revolutionary groups in Britain have managed to win some support and a base in the working class, it is most often through the fight for control of Labour Party units. The young CPGB in the early 20s fought for and won control of a large number of Labour Party branches and organized the National Left Wing movement to unite this Marxist left in the Labour Party. The abandonment of the NLWM due to Stalinist third period policies was one of the most disastrous decisions ever made on the British left. The SLL in the 50s and the Militant in the 70s both expanded from small groups to being (possibly) the largest and most influential Trotskyist groups in the world at the time because of they won control of the Labour Party Young Socialists. This gave them a position to argue for their bastardised brand of Marxism to a massively expanded number of young workers. Our own group never had as much influence as when it was the Socialist Organisor in the Labour Party. Of course we were eventually expelled from the Labour Party, the LPYS was shut down on several occasions due to Trotskyist ‘infiltration’ and branches where closed down. But these struggles actually illustrate to left wing Labour party members and supporters what the leadership represents’. As Lenin said:

“If the Henderson's and the Snowdens reject a bloc with us on these terms, we shall gain still more, for we shall at once have shown the masses (note that, even in the purely Menshevik and completely opportunist Independent Labour Party, the rank and file are in favour of Soviets) that the Hendersons prefer their close relations with the capitalists to the unity of all the workers. We shall immediately gain in the eyes- of the masses”

Even if we are expelled on mass from branches you might retain a base of supporters on which to build. As a much more recent example: The Alliance for Green Socialism (AGS) was formed by the expelled Roundhay branch LP. The AGS still has hundreds of members, got possibly the largest vote of any independent socialist group at this election and has a base area of working class support because of its recent history as a left wing Labour Party branch.

I am not advocating we subsume our selves into Labour routinism, or fore-fit our independence of action. We would remain as a Cannonite propaganda group educating, agitating and organising in the unions, on campuses and in campaigns. We would not make a fetish of entryism or hide our politics. Neither should we just turn up on our own at CLP meetings to sell our paper and make a few contacts.

We should put out a call for all revolutionary socialists serious about working class politics outside the Labour party to enter the Labour party with us openly as revolutionaries. We should ally with any forces already in the party who really do want to fight for socialist politics in the labour movment. Where possible we should try with other leftists to win the leadership of LP branches, Labour Student societies etc. If we do gain control of branches we would put out socialist propaganda on the doorstep, select working class socialist candidates and get active links with local trade union branches. We could then use the LP as a organising centre for campaigning against the fascists, against cuts and for no borders.

All of this may be far beyond us or the left in general. Perhaps the leadership is too firmly in control even down to branch level but I cannot see any alternative to this In the near future.

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